You don’t feel it?
Feel? Feel what?
Ring the alarum bell!
I gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.
Ring the alarum bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack!
At least we’ll die with harness on our back. 
– Macbeth, Act V Scene V
I love you, Shion. I love you more than anyone else.
Brains floated in the middle of the transparent columns.
How many? Ten, twenty, thirty… perhaps more than fifty. There seemed to be a light source at the base of the column, for the entirety of it emitted a soft, white glow.
A scene he had never seen before. It was orderly, inorganic, and sterile. Not a single stain marred the smooth floor. The chamber was odourless and almost soundless. But that in itself was terrifying. Shion felt that this scene was more terrifying than any he had seen until now. He couldn’t hear the tearful cries, the screams, or groans. There were no corpses, no flowing blood, no faces distorted in agony. But this scene here was so much more wicked than the picture of hell in the basement that he had witnessed and burned into his memory.
Safu stood right inside this terrifying and wicked scene.
Shion staggered as he tried to break into a run, and fell to his knees. He had no strength in his legs. His heart pounded rapidly. His wounded, bleeding, and exhausted body was crying out for mercy.
I can’t go any further than this.
He looked up. A stream of sweat travelled down his cheek and moistened his mouth.
Safu still stood silently, gazing at Shion. She hadn’t changed at all. Nothing about her had changed: the length of her hair, her stature, her unwavering gaze.
Lost Town, No. 6. They had made a hurried parting at the station. The Safu he had seen then was standing in front of him now.
She didn’t look worn out. She didn’t look wounded.
“Safu… you’re safe.” You’re safe. You managed to stay safe. You managed to live. We were able to see each other again, alive.
I love you, Shion. I love you more than anyone else.
Her confession had reached him through his ID card. A cutting-edge communication device had mediated these flesh-and-blood feelings.
Her voice was coming back to him.
“Shion, you came.” Safu’s voice. A little low for a girl’s, yet always crisp and taut. He missed it.
It moved his heart. It squeezed his chest.
Oh, how I’ve missed it.
Safu, we’ve been separated by a pretty long distance, haven’t we? I feel like we haven’t seen each other for a century.
“I knew. I believed you would come…” Safu smiled. Then her face crumpled into an expression both happy and tearful. “I was waiting all this time. Waiting was all I could do. I could only wait for you here…”
Shion raised the upper half of his body, and took a deep breath.
“I knew I had to come sooner… I’m sorry, Safu.”
Safu shook her head, and cocked her head to one side. She blinked, and a faint agitation crossed her eyes.
“Shion, your hair…”
“Huh? Oh, this hair. Well, a lot of things happened, and… I’ll take my time and tell you everything later.” I’ll tell you everything about what I experienced while we were separated. There are so many things I want you to hear, to listen to. One evening wouldn’t be nearly enough to cover everything.
“You must have gone through so many hardships… more difficult than I can imagine. I’m sure that getting here wasn’t the average stroll in the park, was it? But you still came. For me… that’s more than enough. Thank you, Shion. Thank you so much.”
“Like her dying words or something,” Nezumi muttered from his spot beside Shion. It wasn’t a cold voice. But it was flat and emotionless.
Safu’s eyes moved slowly in response to the mutter, and fell on Nezumi.
“You must be Nezumi…”
“Nice to meet you. I’ve always wanted to take a look at you. I wanted to know what kind of person you were.”
“Here I am. Usually, I look better. This isn’t the state I’d like a lady to see me in, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to wash my face or change into my good suit. Do forgive me.” Nezumi also had his gaze fixed on Safu. He stared at her without blinking.
“Safu, I have something I want to ask you.”
“Are you the one who controlled the main computer to lead us here?”
There was no answer from Safu. A moment’s silence passed. Shion looked up at Nezumi, still on his knees.
Safu, control this Facility’s computer? There’s no way she could have.
He swallowed the words just about to leave his mouth.
It couldn’t be. But that was the only possible explanation.
Nezumi’s grey eyes slid slightly aside.
“Yeah. That’s the only explanation.” His words tracing Shion’s thoughts almost exactly, Nezumi continued in an expressionless voice. “You said so,” he said to Shion, “you said someone was calling. Thanks to that someone, we were able to get this far. Granted, this isn’t the kind of place I’d be terribly excited to see. But that aside, I can’t think of anyone else who’d be the precious sort to send us welcoming emissaries from inside the Correctional Facility. She’s the only possible person.”
He had no choice but to nod. Shion himself had been feeling Safu calling him. He had been urged on by this voice, and been led thus far.
But if that was the case, that meant Safu was somehow involved with the core of the computer system.
But how? How was it made possible for her?
“Shion.” Only Nezumi’s lips moved as he called Shion’s name. “How long are you planning on sitting there for? You can wait for as long as you like, but there won’t be any coffee coming.”
Of course. What was he doing? He’d come this far: what was he doing squatted on the ground?
He willed strength into his legs, and stood up. His feet were unsteady. He managed to dig his heels in, but barely. Nezumi never tried to reach out to him. Shion also had no intentions of clinging to the figure that stood beside him.
They were wounded, exhausted, and had spilled the same amount of blood―no, it must have been much more arduous for Nezumi.
Clinging was the last thing Shion wanted to do. Even if he were to lean on Nezumi and manage to stand, taking the next step would probably prove immensely difficult. If he could stand with his own strength, he would be able to advance with his own strength as well.
Safu was still watching them. Her hands were clasped tightly together as if in prayer, and she remained still.
“It wasn’t me,” was Safu’s short answer. “I don’t have that kind of power.”
Nezumi’s brow furrowed slightly.
“I only thought it… I only kept thinking in my heart that I wanted to see Shion.”
“Then who is it? Who brought us here?”
“Elyurias!” Nezumi and Shion cried in unison.
They had heard the name from Rou, the elder who had long lived in the underground realm. He was a man who had been involved in the foundation of No. 6 as a city-state, and had lost both his legs to the parasite wasp as its first sacrifice. He was an old and close friend of Shion’s mother, Karan.
Rou had said it.
Elyurias was a great sovereign. No, I am sure she still is. She probably still reigns even now.
Shion ran a hand over his pocket. The chip that Rou had given him was in there. Once he rescued Safu safely from the Correctional Facility, he wanted to take his time to decode it thoroughly. Here lay the answers to the puzzle. The mystery of No. 6. The mystery of the underground realm. And more than anything, the mysteries surrounding Nezumi. Answers existed to these questions. There must also be considerable amounts of information loaded onto the chip concerning Elyurias, the queen.
His heart raced slightly at the thought. But he had forgotten cleanly about the chip after stepping into the Correctional Facility. He hadn’t even recalled it once. They had not had the time. He had been running constantly, pushing the limits of his mind and body. One misstep, one moment of decision could invert life and death. He had to survive even one second longer―survive and move forward. This thought had occupied his mind completely.
To think that he would hear this name coming from Safu’s mouth.
“Do you know Elyurias?” Nezumi’s tone wavered for the first time. A faint agitation crept into his voice.
“I don’t. But… she was the one who led you here. She awakened me completely… she taught me the truth.”
“The truth,” Nezumi repeated, as if to cross-examine her. “Truth, huh. Safu, why did Elyurias or whoever it is invite us here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is Elyurias now?”
“I don’t know… but―”
“But I think she must be… very close. I have a feeling she is.”
“Is that just your intuition, or―”
Safu shifted on the spot.
“Bombarding me with questions, aren’t you, Nezumi?”
“I won’t get any answers if I don’t bombard you. We haven’t come here to have a leisurely chat. There’s a pile of things we have to know, that we ought to know. If you could just give us the answers, that’s efficient for all of us. Don’t you think, Safu?”
“You’re right. But I can’t answer even half of what you want to know. You’re not looking for the kind of answers… that you can obtain easily, right?”
“So you’re telling us to go out and search for ourselves if we want answers.” Nezumi exhaled. “Which means, to sum it up, you don’t know anything.”
“I don’t know anything about you, Nezumi. But I do know… about Shion.”
Safu exhaled as well. “Because I wished it. I wished strongly that I would get to see Shion. Elyurias heard my wish. She told me…”
Safu’s lips trembled.
“I will grant your wish. I will bring you to the person you most want to see… that’s what she said. And she didn’t break her promise.”
“So Elyurias can freely control the computer system?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know who she is, or where she is, or why she started to talk to me all of a sudden… I don’t have a clear idea… of anything.”
“She spoke? To you? From beside you?”
Safu refuted the suggestion.
No, not like that.
“She… spoke from inside me. When I was falling asleep, she called to me directly.”
“Wait, what do you mean by―”
“That’s enough.” Shion took hold of Nezumi’s arm. Nezumi’s slid his gaze languidly from Shion’s fingers to his face.
“It’s alright, that’s enough, Nezumi. We’re not here to have a leisurely chat, or to interrogate Safu.”
We’ve come this far. Now we have to escape.
There were two people up to this point, and from here on there will be three.
Nezumi continued to stare at Shion, and blinked.
“That’s awfully pessimistic of you.”
“I’m careful. I don’t do the naivety thing. It’s probably known all over by now that we’re on this top floor. Scary old men might be storming up from downstairs right this moment.”
“Nezumi, there’s only one route that leads here, and that’s the elevator we just came with. No one can enter unless that elevator moves. All the facilities in this building are programmed into the computer system.”
“And what makes you so sure that the system’s gonna stay on our side? Are you saying you can see when and where our situation is gonna change?”
He was at a loss for an answer.
“We can’t even put a finger on who or what this Elyurias person is. Don’t forget that. Think before trusting someone whom you don’t even know the truth about.”
Nezumi was right. Neither Shion nor Nezumi had any definite information about Elyurias. What they had was what Rou had told them, and what they had heard from Safu.
He knew they could not cling to ambiguous things. They could not make a blindly positive interpretation. It took firm resolve to believe in another person. Trust was hollow without resolve. It was a fake, papier-mache indulgence masked with a thin wrapper. And even a millimetre of indulgence was enough to cost him his life.
“Safu,” Shion spoke to the girl in front of him. “Could you take us to the main computer… the mother computer, it might be called… the core of the system?”
Safu nodded. There was no time for hesitation, anxiety, or prolonged thought.
“Follow me.” She turned her back, and started to walk.
“Let’s go,” Shion encouraged. Nezumi showed a slight hesitation.
“Can we trust her?”
“Yeah. Can we just follow her innocently like this? Can you say for sure that she won’t betray us?”
“And you’re absolutely sure?” A cold smile played on Nezumi’s lips. Declaring absolute trust in someone was not a virtue for Nezumi; it was closer to foolhardiness.
“Nezumi, I have three people I can trust one-hundred percent, no matter what happens to me. Those people are Safu, my mother, and you.”
I can believe them, no matter what. Believing has supported me. I don’t think it’s naivety. A simple and superficial trust will corner a person into trouble one day. But someone who can’t trust anyone sincerely is fragile. The only foothold they have is an unstable one on sand.
I can believe, no matter what happens. I can keep on believing to the end. That’s resilience―it can’t be anything else.
“If… If any one of these three were to betray me, then I would resign myself to it. Even if I were to lose my life over it, I wouldn’t have any regrets. When I start doubting Safu, or my mother, or you… when I stop being able to believe in you, that’s the same as annihilation for me.”
The smile vanished from Nezumi’s face. The colour in his eyes darkened. It made Nezumi look like someone in endless thought in search for the truth, or a lost man wandering at his wit’s end.
“Shion, you don’t feel it?”
“Feel? Feel what?”
“Off… about what?”
Nezumi watched Safu’s back in silence.
“Alright, fine, we’ll do as you wish. It seems like the only path open to me is the one that follows yours, anyway. Took me long enough to realize it, but I guess I have to steel myself if I want to get anywhere.”
“Does that mean you trust me?”
“Don’t get carried away, idiot,” spat Nezumi as he began to walk. It was hard to tell that he had a bullet wound in his leg. Shion couldn’t help but drag his own foot. His wounded leg felt heavy, as if it were not his own.
They moved further in amongst the transparent columns with Safu in the lead. Some moments later, they hit a wall. It was white with a faint tint of yellow, like the floor. The wall split open silently as Safu stood in front of it.
“The inner chamber of the palace, huh?” Nezumi licked his lips.
Shion had opened his eyes widely, almost unconsciously holding his breath.
It was a white, brightly-lit room. It was not particularly spacious. The size was about the same as a floor or a living room of an average-sized house in No. 6. The lights glowed brilliantly, illuminating every corner of the room, which had no windows or furniture.
A column penetrated its centre. It was a size thicker than what he had seen moments earlier. There was no brain floating in it, but there was a pale silver sphere. It was covered in innumerable small projections, and the tips of those projections blinked with lights every few seconds. Some were blue, some were crimson, and yet others glowed a deep red. Thin, clear tubes extended from some of the projections and spread upwards in a tangle. It was too dark beyond that to see any further.
“This is the Mother.”
“This is the Mother?”
Safu and Shion’s voices overlapped.
“There’s an identical model in the Moondrop. That one’s the Grandmother, and people call it Grandma. A research institution that was first stationed in the Moondrop broke off as an independent organization and moved to the Correctional Facility. That was because a version of Grandma ― smaller, but with the same functions ― was complete. The Mother. That was one reason.”
“In the Correctional Facility, they could easily get their hands on test subjects for their experiments. Human test subjects, to be exact. That would be the second reason, right?”
“Either that, or they were starting to need larger quantities of them. There was no way to acquire humans in bulk to use as lab rats. Not in No. 6. Bringing in a large number of people from outside would also be a hassle. But here, in the Correctional Facility, there would be no problem. People were overflowing in the West Block. They only had to switch the purpose of their Hunt, which was population control, to securing test subjects. It can be for the granny or the mom, but I think that might be a more likely reason for their little move than the computer, don’t you think?”
“You may be right.” Safu closed her eyes for a short while. Once the girl’s black eyes disappeared from her bloodless face, she looked like a doll.
“The Correctional Facility was…. always a place for human experimentation. Many experiments involving living human bodies were conducted over and over. Thanks to that, No. 6’s medical technology saw leaps and bounds in development… And both you and I, Shion, received the full benefits of it…”
“Yeah… that’s right.”
Shion turned back to Nezumi and asked him a question. His voice didn’t sound like his own, it was so raspy and unpleasant to the ears.
“Nezumi, that room… that room with the passageway that led from the underground chamber…”
The bottom of the elevator had opened, fast becoming a gallows, and the people were dashed to the ground along with their screams. The underground chamber had become the first page in the book of hellish horrors, and a narrow passageway from there had opened up into a room that looked nearly like a cube. Nezumi had called it a “temporary resting place”.
“Yeah. Have you finally noticed? The structure from the underground chamber to that room is designed to select lab rats. The people who were able to reach that room were those who could bear the impact from falling from the elevator, and escape on their own using the blinking lights as a guide. They’re lab rats with above-average strength in both body and mind, and with a decent amount of intelligence. Superior lab rats. If you’re going to use lab rats, you might as well get the stronger, more resistant ones. That’s what they thought.”
Safu made a small choked noise.
The eyes of a certain man rose in the back of Shion’s mind. He did not know the name nor the upbringing of the man who possessed those eyes. The man had been struggling, unable to die, and had clung to Shion in his suffering, and his eyes―his eyes were coming back to him.
Nezumi had been the one who saved that man. He had given the man a peaceful death. Nezumi had called it murder, not salvation. Shion didn’t know. Like before, even now, Shion struggled to grasp the answer.
The only thing Shion could answer for certain was that that man was a living human, not an experimental lab rat.
“Do you remember there being a door in that room?” Nezumi asked him. Shion remembered. The room had been illuminated then, though somewhat dimly. The light had stung at his eyes which had been used to the darkness. He had seen a grey door beneath that light. He remembered.
“That door is where they come to collect the survivors, but it doesn’t lead into the Correctional Facility. It’s from when the research institution still used to be at the Moondrop. People were let out through that door, then embedded with identification chips like prisoners, and then sent to the city hall ― the Moondrop. The chip is a safety measure in case someone escapes. But by placing the research institution right inside the Correctional Facility, they removed all of that extra work. Efficient, indeed, don’t you think?”
“Identification chip…” Something flared up in his mind. “Nezumi, you got out through that door four years ago, didn’t you? And you escaped while you were being escorted to the Moondrop.”
“Four years ago, huh… it was a stormy day. I mark it down on my calendar as the day I met a certain weirdo who opened his window in the middle of a rainstorm. But now isn’t the time to be taking a walk down memory lane. Safu, you know the truth about the Correctional Facility. Not only that, but about No. 6 itself. And Elyurias is the one who told you about it, right?”
“Yes. She taught me the truth behind No. 6, the so-called Holy City, the Utopia, even. …But Shion, you weren’t just taught. You saw with your own eyes. You heard with your own ears.”
“Only a part of it.” Only a part of it. There were still an enormous amount of things he didn’t know, hadn’t realized yet, still had to ponder and think about.
Shion inhaled. He felt a faint pain deep within his chest. It wasn’t a physical pain. It was a small twinge inside his mind that had developed unbeknownst to him. It throbbed every time he thought about No. 6.
No. 6 was no utopia. It was a ruthless and cruel city-state. For its peace and prosperity, it shunned no kind of brutality. But, but, but…. Shion inhaled again, and pressed a hand to his chest.
What was No. 6? Was it not a country built by human hands?
I want you to believe this much. We tried to found an ideal city here, a Paradise free of war and poverty… where we could have gone wrong, I don’t know..
Rou’s words. He was sure they weren’t lies. No. 6 in its infancy had still been based on the ideology and will of human beings.
A society without war, so that everyone could be happy.
Where did we go wrong?
Rou’s thin, trembling voice and his words left a mark in Shion’s heart like a hot brand.
Where do people stray off the path? When do they begin to obey their greed rather than their ideals? Or are ideals just prone to morphing easily into greed? If so, then the same thing will happen in the future. Even if No. 6 were to fall, a second, a third Holy City would be born.
Where did we go wrong?
Are human beings capable of creating a country without going astray?
Shion shook his head. Now was not the time to be uncertain over his own questions. He was not going to flee. He would face them squarely in the near future. But now, he had to focus on the single task of overcoming the wall before him.
He drew closer to the Mother.
A thin plastic board which looked like a control panel was attached to the front of the round column. There were seven keys in each column and fourteen in each row. They were white, marked with no numbers, letters, or symbols. He tapped a key to test it out, but there was no response. He let his fingers race across the control panel, typing whatever that came to mind.
“How is it?” Nezumi peered at Shion’s hands. “Does it look like you can do something about it?”
“It’s not working.”
“Don’t give up just yet. It shouldn’t be hard to have Mama or Grandma in the palm of your hand with your brains and skills. I think you’re quite a womanizer in that sense.”
“You’re expecting too much from me, Nezumi. I’m no match against her. Forget coaxing her to like me, she’s already elbowed me away because she doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
Nezumi’s eyes narrowed, and the dark grey light in them condensed.
“So the Mother didn’t take a liking to you… are you sure you can’t do it, Shion?”
“I can’t. There seems to be a special authorization system, and you can’t get close to the Mother unless you clear it. It’s too bad, but… there’s nothing more I can do.”
“Mama is so strict. I can’t help but sigh,” Nezumi said, clicking his tongue instead.
“Safu, how about you?”
“I can’t, Shion. No one can can go near Mother, save one person.”
“One person… the mayor?”
“No. This person has no name for his profession. He created this research institution, and presides over it… he thinks he is the true ruler of No. 6. The Mother is his creation, and it’ll only obey him. That’s how it was made.”
“How about this woman, Elyurias? Doesn’t she have full control over the Mother? That’s why she was able to open and close the barriers when she wanted, and operate the elevator, right?”
Nezumi and Shion looked at each other.
Yes, Elyurias. Maybe she can…
“Safu, does Elyurias still speak to you? Can you speak to her from your end?”
He took one step closer to Safu.
Safu took one step back.
Now, Shion finally felt “something off”, as Nezumi had mentioned earlier.
Why doesn’t she come closer?
Safu always kept a set distance, and didn’t try to narrow that gap.
“Don’t come!” Safu’s words sounded close to a scream as they issued from her lips. Shion watched the girl recoil, and felt his heart palpitating. A flurry of unease started up in his chest.
“Why are you running away, Safu?”
“Don’t come close. Please. Shion…”
A tear suddenly trickled down Safu’s cheek.
“I was waiting… waiting all this time. I wanted to see you, so, so much… that was all I hoped for…”
“And we did see each other. I’m right in front of you, right now. I came to save you and get you out of here. We came to escape the Correctional Facility together.”
He stepped forward and offered a hand.
“Safu, let’s get out. Out of this building. Let’s go together.”
Safu jerked her chin up. She was chewing her lip in a desperate attempt to contain her shaking. She shook her head, her face still drawn.
A gesture of rejection.
“Why!? Why are you refusing us?”
He tried to restrain himself, but he could not. His tone turned rough to match the rise of his emotions.
Safu, let me hold you. Hold you with my own arms. I want to embrace you to make up for all those years we spent apart. We’ve finally been able to see each other. Words of every kind are whirling inside me, words to say to you, to tell you, to apologize to you. Like a muddy stream. Like a howling wind, they’re ringing out.
But why do you refuse? Why are you trying to flee from the hand I’m offering you?
He was grabbed by the arm.
“Stop.” Nezumi’s fingers dug deeply into his skin. “Stop it. Don’t get any closer. Do as she says.”
“Nezumi, even you―?”
Nezumi beheld Shion silently, still holding his arm. His gaze stopped Shion from saying anything more. Shion swallowed the rest of his sentence. His unspoken words became a muddy flow, a swift wind that further agitated his heart. His breathing turned erratic from anxiety and uncertainty. It was an entirely different type of unrest than what he had felt at imagining the difficulty of all three of them escaping the Correctional Facility together.
His body froze up at this unidentifiable fear.
“Safu, what do you want?” Nezumi asked. There was no hint of aggressive pressure. His voice was soft, deep, and beautiful. “What do you want us to do?”
Safu’s expression relaxed somewhat.
“…Will you grant my wish?”
“It’s my command.”
Safu drew a slight breath.
“Destroy the Mother.”
Nezumi’s fingers tightened their grip, but in the next instant, fell from Shion’s arm. Only the sensation of his strong grip remained.
“You’re telling us to destroy this computer.”
“I see… well, if we could do that, that’d be more than I could ask for. If we could, that is.” Nezumi fished out a coin-shaped microbomb from his jacket pocket, and held it between his fingers.
“If we set this guy to maximum power, it should be able to blow apart the computer, no problem.”
“It won’t work.”
Shion lightly touched the cylindrical column.
“The computer itself might be fragile, but the problem is with this column. It’s made of special plastic. I’m pretty sure that even a missile hitting this thing wouldn’t make it budge. It’s like a glass ball encased in a durable capsule. It’s impossible to destroy it with a coin bomb.”
“You’re a hundred percent sure.”
“A hundred percent impossible, and zero percent possible. Then we’ve got nothing to go on.”
“I can open the column.”
Nezumi’s gaze hardened at Safu’s words.
“You can open the door to the Mother?”
“Yes. She can do it. I’m sure she’ll open it for you.”
“If she can do so much already, it should be easy enough for her to stop the Mother itself. You don’t even need to rely on us.”
“It needs will.”
“She said… there needs to be human will.”
Nezumi and Shion looked at each other blankly for a second or two.
“There needs to be human will in order to destroy it,” Safu repeated. She was like a medium announcing an oracle. Nezumi shifted uneasily.
“Those are Elyurias’ words?”
“So she’s saying she’ll help, but the final decision has to come from our will.”
“But that means…” Nezumi trailed off. Shion was nodding. He felt like he had heard clearly what Nezumi had left unsaid.
That means Elyurias isn’t human.
It was probably true. He couldn’t imagine a human in the flesh able to manoeuvre through such a tight security system and infiltrate its information routes, except for “him”.
Elyurias wasn’t a human. Then, what was she?
A god? A demon? A spirit of nature? Could she be―
“There needs to be human will in order to destroy it…” Nezumi repeated Safu’s―no, Elyurias’― words.
Safu closed her eyes, and murmured. “Humans are the only ones who wilfully destroy things. It is something only humans can do… so only humans can destroy the Mother.”
It was almost like an incantation.
Shion felt a chill.
Shion knew Safu as a person of frank speech, with a very strong sense of reality. She could speak of hopes and dreams in realistic terms, not fantastical ones; but reality did not bind her too strongly, for she could still have hopes and dreams without being hindered by it. She was sensitive, but not over-sensitive. Her mind was like a straight young tree. It was upright, yet flexible.
She wasn’t the kind of girl to repeat herself in a muffled murmur like this. She was definitely not.
“Fine. We’ll take it on.” Nezumi’s voice made Shion’s eardrum tremble. He was supposed to be used to hearing his voice, and yet it hit his earlobes more vividly than ever.
Safu opened her eyes.
“…Will you grant it?”
“If that’s your wish.”
“Thank you. I am grateful.” Safu clasped her hands, and bowed her head.
“I don’t need any thanks. Destroying the Mother is like shooting the Correctional Facility through the heart. I could have wished with all my might and still not gotten this opportunity. It’s worth a try, if this column will really open and expose the Mother, even for a moment.”
Nezumi’s eyes glittered. It was like the glitter of a finely-sharpened knife.
The control panel lit up without warning. Words emerged in the air. Nezumi gave a short whistle. He placed his fingers on the control panel.
Shion’s gaze was focused intently on Nezumi’s fingertips. Every time, and at any time, he couldn’t help but admire those graceful movements. To Shion, those fingers seemed to play a sweet melody, or breathe life into a lively rhythm.
Every time, and at any time, he couldn’t help but admire him…. But this time, his heart was not drawn as strongly as usual.
The restless sounds of his heart refused to disappear. Instead, they echoed even more strongly.
Nezumi’s fingers stilled. A silver thread suddenly appeared in the centre of the column. One, two, three, four. The silver threads intersected to form a rectangle.
“The door,” Nezumi said. “All you have to say now is ‘open sesame’.” Perhaps even he was tense; Nezumi’s voice was low and somewhat heavy-sounding.
“Wait.” Shion grabbed Nezumi’s wrist. He could feel the other’s body heat and pulse on the palm of his hand. “Just wait for a second.”
A shadow crossed Nezumi’s eyes. A breath’s length of silence.
“Shion, we don’t have time to be wishy-washy and hesitant.”
“I know. But wait, please… Safu.”
Safu’s head was still bowed. Her shoulders clad in her black sweater were trembling.
“Safu, you still haven’t answered my question. Why are you refusing us? Why aren’t you coming any closer?”
“And that sweater… your grandmother hand-knitted that, didn’t she? The last time I saw that was a long time ago. I probably wasn’t even ten then.”
“You’re right.” Safu broke into a sudden smile. “You were the one to speak to me first. You said it suited me. I was happy… so happy. Everyone else was laughing condescendingly at my hand-knitted sweater. They were saying that you’d only find a wool sweater in a museum these days. But you didn’t laugh. You… only you were loyal to your own feelings and emotions, and to others, too. Shion… I was able to meet you in that bleak… even lonely… world of elite education. And that, I think, is very―”
“Stop!” Shion overran Safu’s words. “Why are you talking about past memories? That’s not what I want to hear. What I want to say is: why are you still able to wear a sweater you got when you were ten? You’ve grown taller since then, and your frame has changed, too. There’s no way you should be able to wear it. Or is that a new sweater that looks exactly the same? But…”
“I wanted you to remember.” Safu interrupted Shion this time. “I wanted you to remember me. You said this suited me… so I wanted you to remember me wearing this sweater.”
“Remember? Are you telling me to turn you into a memory? Safu, what’re you talking about? You’re not planning to come along with us?”
“Shion, leave it at that.” Nezumi grasped his arm again. This time, he held fast and yanked. It was enough power to make Shion stagger.
Shion tripped, and bumped into Nezumi. Nezumi did not budge.
“That’s enough. This is as far as it goes.”
“A far as what goes?”
“Don’t corner her to distract yourself from your own uncertainty. That’s a cowardly thing to do.”
Shion felt himself sweating. Nezumi’s gaze stabbed at him.
“Shion, you know already, don’t you? There’s no way you couldn’t have realized. And if you have realized… don’t avert your eyes from the truth. Averting your eyes and running away isn’t going to solve anything. Nothing will change, and nothing will return to the way it was.”
It will solve nothing. Nothing will change. Nothing will return to the way it was.
It was difficult to draw a breath. The sweat stung in his eyes.
“Shion, don’t run away. At the very least, not now… you can’t run away now.”
He blinked. He caught Nezumi’s gaze. He turned his head, and glanced at Safu.
“…You’re saying she’s not real… that she’s an illusion.”
“She’s what the Mother is showing us: a virtual reality. Your friend doesn’t exist in reality.”
Doesn’t exist in reality. What is that? What do those words mean?
Shion was close to screaming. Terror welled up from the core of his body. Safu had not run into his outstretched arms. She had not even tried to touch Shion’s fingertips.
She had not been able to. She was neither able to embrace nor be embraced.
Doesn’t exist in reality.
illusion. An incorporeal illusion.
Nezumi’s tone became hurried, though only slightly. “At first I thought it was a trap. But I changed my mind when I realized there would be no point in setting a trap for us now. If it wanted to kill us, it had hundreds, thousands of opportunities to do so. It had a reason to keep us alive and bring us here. The Mother went as far as to borrow Safu’s body because it needed to tell us something… that’s what I was thinking. What I didn’t expect was that it would send us on the task of killing the Mother itself.”
“The Mother…” Shion glanced at the sphere covered in protrusions. “It’s not the Mother,” he shook his head. Nezumi’s fingers loosened. “If the Mother had created the virtual image, it would have recreated it true to Safu. It wouldn’t take the trouble to pull up the black sweater from Safu’s memories. Computers don’t have emotions. But Safu chose that sweater out of her own will. It wasn’t the Mother… Nezumi, the Mother isn’t the one showing Safu to us… it’s Safu herself.”
“So Safu is using the Mother to project herself?”
“Yeah… isn’t that right, Safu? Or is this Elyurias’ doing, too?” It sounded so unlike his own voice. Like a cowering beast baring its fangs, desperately raising its voice in aggression. That kind of growl. Twisted and ugly, and fierce but intimidated.
“Yes… Elyurias wakened me. Before then, I felt like I was drifting through a dream… just floating… Elyurias awakened my consciousness, and taught me what I could do. I… can’t overrule the Mother. But I can use part of its functions… that’s all I can do.”
“Where are you? Where are you in reality?”
“Nowhere.” Safu’s voice turned strained. “I don’t exist anywhere anymore.”
“That’s absurd. Then who made you, standing in front of me like this? Didn’t you?”
“I’m not here, Shion. I’ve already…”
Safu took a step closer. Shion also advanced. He extended his arm straight forward. It touched nothing. His fingers had reached Safu’s shoulder, but there was nothing there. Moments ago, he had felt Nezumi’s body heat and pulse. That warmth and movement was proof that he was alive.
“I wanted to say good-bye to you. I wanted to say thank you. I was happy all this time… because you were there.”
Safu looked up at Shion. A defiant glint shone in her eyes. “I loved you.”
“That’s my truth. It doesn’t matter what you think of me. I loved you, and only that is the truth.”
Oh, that’s Safu, Shion thought. Firmly-grounded strength, a beautiful resilience like that of a bird in flight: that was Safu.
“If I hadn’t met you, I wouldn’t have known what it was like to yearn after someone. I would never have known what it meant to love…. I’m glad I was able to know. I was born, and I was able to meet you. I don’t regret a single thing. Hm, well, that might be a little bravado. You did tell me once that I had a bad habit putting on a brave face.”
Safu’s fingers touched Shion’s cheek. He didn’t feel it on his skin. But he definitely did feel that Safu’s fingers had touched him.
“Shion… you think so, too, don’t you?”
Safu threw a glance over Shion’s shoulder at Nezumi, who was standing behind him.
“You feel the same way I do, don’t you? You’re glad you were able to know. You wouldn’t be able to live anymore without knowing what yearning and love is like.”
“…Yeah.” You’re right, Safu. I know. I came to know No. 6’s true face, and the fact that No. 6 existed within me, too. I came to know what it was like for my heart to feel moved for someone, to yearn strongly for someone. I can’t go back to when I didn’t know. I don’t want to go back. I would never want to go back to when I lived peacefully, knowing nothing.
Shion clenched his hand into a hard fist to repress his shaking. But even his fist began to tremble.
“We don’t have to go back. There’s no need to. Safu, we just need to start off from when we do know. We can start off right now, from this place.”
It’s a starting point. A beginning, not an end. Right, Safu? We can go on living together. Together…
His eyes fell on the tubes coming out of the Mother.
What is that connected to?
What are those tubes for?
“Please,” Safu said, looking intently at Nezumi. “Destroy the Mother.”
Nezumi didn’t try to avoid Safu’s gaze. He met it silently, and nodded his assent. Safu breathed a sigh of relief. It was a breath of real relief, from the bottom of her heart.
“Thank you so much…”
“I’ll fulfil the promise. I never break a promise made, no matter what it is.”
“Yes… I know. You’re that kind of person, aren’t you?”
Nezumi faced the control panel again.
The section framed by silver lines glowed faintly red, and slid to the side.
The door had opened.
Nezumi plunged his arm into the opening without a second of hesitation. The control panel prevented him from leaning forward any further. The Mother was out of reach by a very small distance.
A black mouse poked its head out from out of the folds of superfibre. It looked about, then scurried swiftly up to Nezumi’s shoulder.
“I’m counting on you.”
Nezumi held out the coin-shaped bomb, and Tsukiyo took it in its mouth.
“Nezumi, wait, Wait, please!”
“Can’t,” Nezumi said flatly. “I’m going to destroy the Mother. I’m not going to wait any longer.”
“Don’t. Wait, please. Wait. Let me check what’s on the other end of those tubes.”
“There’s no need.”
His gaze collided with Nezumi’s.
“…Are you saying you know? Where Safu is… and what’s on the end of those tubes…”
“You should know, too. You saw it, after all.”
The expanse outside this room. It was like a cemetery with rows of transparent gravestones. Gravestones, or coffins? A burial vessel, each one with a human brain inside.
Tsukiyo dashed off at its master’s command. It leapt energetically toward the Mother, and landed on top of it.
“Alright, good. Now wedge it right there.”
Tsukiyo’s movements were swift and smooth. It wedged the coin bomb between two projections, lifted its head, and twitched its nose toward Nezumi as if to wait for further orders.
Tsukiyo hopped into Nezumi’s open palm. As he withdrew his arm, the door to the Mother closed in the same silent way that it had opened.
Shion watched the events unfold before him stock-still, rooted to the ground.
Nezumi’s eyes looked past Shion.
“Done. Time limit is three minutes. That’s the longest I can set the timer for.”
“Three minutes… get away, quickly.” Safu’s tone and gaze tensed. Shion looked from Nezumi to Safu.
“If we’re going to escape, you’re going to be coming with us.”
“Shion, how many times will you make me repeat myself? I can’t go. You and Nezumi escape together.”
“Go. You don’t have a second to waste. Hurry.”
When they were students, they had been required to present research for their assignments once a month. When it was Safu’s turn to present, some students with the same research topic had made noise and disrupted her on purpose. Even before Shion could stand up to admonish them, Safu had looked straight at those students and thrown a sharp remark.
“You should be ashamed.”
The boy who had been at the centre of the noise-making stood up, and scowled exaggeratedly. “We should be ashamed? Are you insulting us?”
“I have no intention at all of insulting you. But regardless of the content, listening to others’ research presentations until the end is common courtesy at the least, is it not? Even a three-year-old could do it. But you can’t. Something to be ashamed of, isn’t it?”
Applause rose from various spots in the classroom. The boy bit his lip, and resumed his seat in silence.
Her slightly flushed cheeks, her wilful gaze, the line of her tightly-drawn chin―the same Safu from that day was standing right in front of him. But he couldn’t touch her. He couldn’t even escape with her.
That can’t be.
“If you’re in here―” Shion made a fist, and punched the column as hard as his strength allowed. “―I’ll get you out. We’re going together, Safu.”
No matter what you may look like.
“Stop!” Safu shrieked. “Stop, stop. Anything but that!” She raised both her hands as if to block Shion’s vision. “Anything but that… Shion, please. Just don’t… don’t do anything cruel like that… don’t.”
Safu was truly afraid. Fear radiated from her words and her gaze.
“If I was going to be seen by you like this… I would never have hoped for you. I wouldn’t have wished to see you again.”
“Shion, I’ll say this again. I don’t exist anymore, but I’m still trapped. It’s painful. Very. I can’t― I can’t bear any more of this humiliation. So please, destroy the Mother. Set me free.”
He couldn’t think.
Numerous white lines ran through his head, cutting off the circuits of his thoughts.
“Come on.” Nezumi pulled at his arm. “Safu, I want you to secure the escape route for us until the very last minute.”
Safu broke into a run. She collided right into Shion. He instinctively tried to embrace her, but her body passed through him with no impact whatsoever. He didn’t even feel a faint breeze.
I’m an illusion. Nothing more than a mirage. This spoke to him more meaningfully than a million words put together.
Suddenly, an alarm went off. It rang out across the entire Correctional Facility.
Emergency alert. Emergency alert.
Level 5, Level 5.
Emergency evacuation. Emergency evacuation.
He pursued Safu with Nezumi still holding his arm. Half of his mind had ceased to work, and he could neither accept reality, nor make an appropriate judgment. He couldn’t even assess the current situation.
All three of us are escaping together. Me, Nezumi, Safu―three of us, alive, in the flesh. We’re running to stand underneath the sun again. Yes, that has to be it.
The cogwheels creaked in his head. Emitting a strange metallic sound, they turned, stopped, turned backwards, and stopped again.
Creak creak creak, creak creak creak…
His torn thought circuits mended once, then were cut apart and scattered asunder; then they solidified, and turned sticky.
All three of us are escaping. We’ll be able to get out. We can get away. We can go back to that place I yearn for again.
I yearn, I yearn, I yearn, I yearn… for that place that has burned itself into my eyes, engraved itself into my soul. Not No. 6, of course, but that room. The place that brought me back to life, and allowed me to be born again.
I want to show Safu that room, where Nezumi lives.
Safu, you wouldn’t believe this place. There’s almost nothing in it apart from books. There’s a chair. There’s a kerosene heater, a bed… and the little mice. Just those. You’ll probably stand there in astonishment, open your eyes wide, and look around the place again and again. You’d reach out and gently place your fingers on the piles of books. And then… and then, what would you do? Would you smile? Would you cry out in awe? Would you be so overwhelmed that you would only stand dazed?
Then, I’d tell you: ‘This was my starting point.’
That room was where I started off. I took a cautious step out of the bounds of my ignorance, led along by Nezumi. Like a baby who touches the outside world for its first time, I stepped out into a world I didn’t know about. I want to show that place to you. I want you to see it, too.
Oh, and Inukashi. I need to introduce Inukashi to you. He’s the greatest―such a jovial and wonderful person. You could probably get friendly with him in no time. Inukashi can really understand, you know. He can sniff out the true nature of people. No matter how well you disguise yourself, he always notices the arrogance and foolishness under your disguise.
‘I have a good nose, particularly when it comes to the smell of rot. It can be meat, leftover food, or someone’s rotten intentions, but I’ll smell it out in no time. Can’t hide nothing from me.’
He said that to me once, and he’s right. Inukashi will sniff out anything. It’s pretty amazing. And that’s why I think he’ll like you. He definitely will. He’ll twitch the tip of his nose, and he’ll say:
‘Hmmm. Shion, this girl is pretty fresh. She looks good to eat. I know for sure I wouldn’t have to worry about getting food poisoning if I did.’
And he’ll smirk. He has a very rough way of speaking, and―yeah, it’ll probably surprise you until you get used to it… but Inukashi never lies. He won’t turn against his own heart. He’s someone you can trust with your whole being. You’ll come to understand and accept the way he is.
Ha ha, I can almost imagine you stretching your hand out to Inukashi, and him taking it gingerly with a sullen look on his face. And I’d probably be watching, trying not to laugh.
Then, there’s Rikiga-san. He’s quite older, and he and my mother actually knew each other. Isn’t that a surprise?
Rikiga-san also has a rough way of speaking. He also has bad drinking habits. He’s a big drinker, and he’ll drink for almost the entire day. Nezumi and Inukashi always tease him about that. But I listen to the way they tease him, and it’s sometimes so harsh I feel bad for him. It’s true that he drinks too much, though. But―how would I describe it?―he has his own likeable traits. Rikiga-san has his own passions and emotions, too, and I can feel them from him. He’s the type of person that doesn’t exist in No. 6. You’d agree, right? There’s no one in that city who would show their emotions so openly. Nezumi says that all that drinking has loosened Rikiga’s stopper on his emotions to the point that they’re constantly gushing out into the open for everyone to see… and yes, Nezumi’s got quite a sharp tongue too. One that would match Inukashi’s.
There’s also a girl named Kalan. That’s right, she has the same name as my mother. She’s the first friend I made in the West Block. She’s still a little girl, but she’s strong and smart with a sense of pride. She loves picture books, and I’ve read them aloud to her lots of times. It had been so long since I read picture books.
And above all, I have to tell you about Nezumi. I want you to know about him. Four years ago on a stormy night, I met him. Ever since then, I feel like I’ve been captured by him. When I’m with him, I lose sight of myself. No, that’s not it. I’m illuminated vividly. Maybe I’m blinded for an instant because that light is so bright. That’s how much my vision had deteriorated. It was so weak, I couldn’t even discern myself, my surroundings, or the truth. Safu, his―Nezumi’s gaze and words pierce me. They shoot through me, batter me, and save me. By his hands, I was melted, wrought anew, and instilled with new life.
Safu, Safu you are my one and only, irreplaceable friend. You’re an important friend, and no one else could compare.
Is that word so cruel? Is the love you have for me, and the feelings I have for you forever parallel, with no chance of intersecting?
Why are you such a kid?
You seemed weary when you said that. And you’re right. I’m so immature, I’m embarrassed at myself. I can’t restrain my emotions. If only I could love you the way you wished me to… my one and only, so dear to me…
The cogwheels turned. They continued to jerk, producing an unpleasant sound.
Creak creak creak, creak creak creak…
All three of us are escaping. I know we can get out.
They slipped hastily past the cylindrical columns. It was still and quiet. Only two sets of footsteps―Nezumi’s and Shion’s―echoed.
The crimson door opened. They could see the deserted hallway. The three doors were completely shut, and there was no sign of any human presence.
Safu’s feet stopped.
“Go, hurry.” She pointed straight at the elevator. “I’ll operate it for as long as I can, up to the time limit.”
“Gotcha.” Nezumi stepped into the hallway. He was still holding onto Shion’s arm.
“Safu, you too.”
“This is as far as I’ll go. Shion, thank you, and good-bye. Nezumi, you as well.” Safu smiled.
The door closed again.
“Safu, wait, Safu―”
He was grabbed by the shoulder, and forced to turn around. A fist dug into his stomach.
“Gh―” he could hear himself emit a low groan. His body sank, and collapsed into Nezumi’s arms. He didn’t lose consciousness, but for an instant, his limbs went numb. He could not move.
He was being dragged to the elevator. He could feel Nezumi’s laboured breathing and the beating of his heart. The elevator opened as if to summon them inside. Nezumi muttered something. Shion couldn’t hear. He tripped, staggered, and they tumbled into the elevator with Nezumi still holding onto Shion.
The elevator descended rapidly.
The security alarm was still going off.
Emergency alert. Emergency alert.
Level 5. Level 5.
Emergency evacuation. Emergency evacuation.
All personnel, evacuate immediately.
Level 5. Level 5.
Emergency evacuation. Emergency evacuation.
“―Safu,” Shion choked, still thrown out onto the floor. Nezumi also crouched, breathing raggedly.
I can’t stand any more, he thought. Both his body and soul had withered. They were withered dry, yet so heavy. He felt like lead had been poured into him, down to the tips of his hair. He couldn’t move anything.
“Don’t… make noise yet.” Nezumi’s voice. It was coming from somewhere high above his head. Echoing somewhere far, far in the distance.
Nezumi, what am I here for? Why am I here, collapsed in weakness, unable to move? Where is Safu? Why did you leave her? Tell me. ‘Don’t cling onto to others. Grasp your own answers,’ you’d probably say. You scorn people who cling to others too easily. I feel shame at my weakness. But this time, please just tell me the answer. Give me the correct one.
Why am I here? Why am I here, having left Safu behind? Tell me. Tell me, Nezumi.
I cling to you.
The elevator came to an abrupt stop, and his body was thrown up by the impact, and flung across the floor again. The door opened partway, and then ceased to move. The lights went out.
He could hear thunder from far-off. A second impact hit him shortly afterwards. It was much heavier than the first one.
Thunder? No. It’s nothing like that. This is―
An explosion jammed his ears. Darkness bore down on him.
Holding his hands over his ears, Shion raised a voiceless cry.
The elevator closed. It began its descent.
Safu stood silently, watching it leave.
Suddenly, a gentle voice rang out in her ears.
“It’s you, Elyurias.” Her eyes roved, but of course, she saw nothing. She could not see, but she could feel.
Safu, was this the right thing to do? Are you truly satisfied?
Safu tilted her head in uncertainty. She put a hand to her chest. Tears sprang unexpectedly into her eyes.
I want to raise my voice and cry.
Shion―Shion, you’re gone.
You came all the way here for me. I thought that would be enough, but what am I feeling? What is this rush of emotion?
Shion, Shion, why is he the one beside you? Why isn’t it me? Why did fate not allow me to live alongside you? If he wasn’t here, would you have loved me instead?
You may not have been able to live together, but you could have died together.
Safu lifted her face, and clasped her hands together at her breast.
Safu, you did not wish for that?
In truth, in truth, had I wished… that you would die with me, that you would expire here with me… Shion?
She shook her head. She did not wish for that. Even now, she did not wish for it a tiny bit. She wanted him to be alive. She wanted him to live, and change this world. She wanted him to create a world in which no one was forced to die such an unfair death.
Shion, live. Live out your life. Please.
“Elyurias, what will you do?”
Me? What will I do…?
“Yes. You’ve been set free, too. What will you do from here?”
Laughter rang out. It sounded like the wind crossing a grassy plain.
You watch and see what I will do.
Safu shuddered. It was no breeze from the plains; she felt like she was being hit by a frigid wind mixed with sleet. A chill wind, signalling the arrival of the coldest days of the winter.
Safu, I liked you. Perhaps… perhaps my meeting a human like you will prove to mean very much to me.
“What do you mean?”
I wonder what? Oh, it’s time. I must go. Good-bye, Safu.
Yes, it was time. Safu closed her eyes. She felt the warm rays of the sun and smelled the fragrance of the trees. She was able to let a faint smile play on her lips.